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Baby Care: Baselines for Mental Health

Babies' experiences can lead to mental illness.

Each year Infant Mental Health Awareness Week reminds us that babies need particular care to promote good mental health. In fact, babies need 24/7 care of a certain kind. Most babies in the U.S. today do not receive the type of care that supports their long term mental (and physical) health.

In our ancestral environments, 24/7 baby care was not so demanding because people lived together in cooperative bands, with many helping hands and social support. But in the industrialized world, especially in the USA today, mothers (and fathers) are often left “on their own” to care for a needy baby. At the same time, because of parent inability to provide for the baby in the way baby needs, experts move in to tell these isolated parents how to cope, how to get through the few years of baby’s extreme developmental needs without going crazy. These “experts” often urge the use of practices that might relieve stress for parents but ultimately undermine baby’s mental and physical wellbeing.

Researchers are awakening to the fact that babies can become "depressed."

What are common practices that undermine young babies’ optimal health?

  • Physical isolation in carriers, cribs, swings
  • Scheduled feedings
  • Cry-it-out sleep training
  • Daily life with strangers
  • Being left to cry
  • Being subjected to pain

(Note that several apply to hospital birth practices also, starting things off on the wrong path.)

I call these practices undercare (if not trauma or neglect). Note that consistency in undercare is better than inconsistency. Animals that are shocked unpredictably break down and often give up and even die. Animals that are shocked in predictable ways learn to cope. Undercare on a schedule is providing the baby with predictability, which helps them cope, though not to grow in ways normal for a human being.

Of course, to make judgments about what is good for a human baby, one must have a baseline(s). Baselines don’t come from experiments because experiments naturally have to be limited in scope (they only look at a few variables in limited conditions) and such experiments typically don’t start with a sense of human baselines.

What is the human baseline for baby raising?

We call it the evolved nest (or evolved developmental niche; Narvaez et al 2013a 2013b; 2013c). Every animal has a nest for its young—humans too! But human babies are especially needy because they should be in the womb another 18 months—yes, at 18 months of age, human children have the capacities of newborns of other animals. Because of this immaturity at birth, vital neurobiological and psychological growth is scheduled to occur during the first months and years of life. Think of housebuilding as an analogy. Without a good foundation, the quality of the house will be suboptimal, though it may take a few years to notice. Similarly, without good neurobiological and psychological foundations in the first years of life, a person’s lifelong wellbeing will be suboptimal. Without the evolved nest, a person’s lifelong wellbeing will be suboptimal.

Virtually all of the characteristics of the human nest are over 30 million years old (having emerged initially with social mammals, the family of animals that humans are part of; Konner, 2005). The nest was provided in 99% of human genus history, prior to civilization (agricultural mono-cultures which started to pull adults away from being with babies 24/7). With civilization, nest practices degraded more and more (as people forgot what babies need and began instead to punish them for their needs; see de Mause, 1995).

What is the typical nest for our species, the baseline of baby care?

  • soothing perinatal experience
  • extensive breastfeeding on request
  • extensive affectionate touch
  • quick and warm responsiveness to needs
  • mutual relationships with caregivers
  • multiple responsive adult caregivers
  • positive social support and climate for mother and baby
  • self-directed free play

These components provide the support for optimizing normal development in early childhood, matching up with and constantly interacting with the maturational development of the child with ongoing epigenetic and plasticity effects. Without them, the trajectory of development shifts to a suboptimal pathway.

PART 1: Baselines for Babies

PART 2: Baby Care: Baselines for Mental Health

PART 3: Baby Care: 3 R’s for Raising Baby

Related blogs:


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